ENCINITAS — Packed into an afternoon of chalk art, community mural painting, Tahitian dancers, a battle of the bands and local nonprofits like the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, the Dragon Knights Stilt Theater performance shined at the annual Encinitas Arts Festival on March 29.
The costumed stilt performers and puppet masters opened the festival on the San Dieguito Academy outdoor stage alongside Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Third District Supervisor Dave Roberts.
Dragon Knights Stilt Theater characters Corto and Eclipse went on to perform a ballet-like dance. Afterward, they worked their way through the festival crowd to mingle, surprise people and take photos.
Corto and Eclipse are two pink-feathered birds that are known for their mischief and ridden by tuxedoed gentleman. They stand over 10 feet tall. Puppetry comes into play when the face-painted riders control the birds’ long necks and beaks creating a second character.
Lili Noden, owner and instructor of Dragon Knights Stilt Theater, describes the performance as characters escaping from a cartoon or dream.
Noden has a rich background in performing arts. She grew up in the South of France where pole stilt performing began, and was trained at the Paris National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts.
By age 16 she was already performing independently.
In 1999 Noden established Dragon Knights Stilt Theater in Encinitas. Performances combine circus arts, masked theater and puppetry in a magical experience for viewers.
Noden personally trains all performers in general theater skills, puppetry and pole stilt walking. The pole stilts are unique in that they are more difficult to balance on than other stilts, and allow more fluid movement.
Many who train with Noden begin with minimal or no theater background.
“I give a chance to everybody to see if it’s possible for them to be trained to be a performer or not,” Noden said.
Benjamin Gadbois, who played Eclipse at the arts festival, met Noden by chance through his wife. He came in without a performing arts background, but with a will to learn. It took him six months to get up to speed and perform in front of an audience.
Daniel Bancroft, who played Corto, was an active performer before he joined the company. He still needed to build muscle and endurance for the demanding physical performance that puts stilt performers three feet off the ground for 15 minutes at a stretch.
Dragon Knights Stilt Theater performers portray a variety of fairy tale characters at festivals, theme parks, zoos and media events around the world for eight months out of the year.
Noden uses the other four months to create new characters, mechanical puppets and costumes. She said performances are always full of light and happiness.
“I love smiles,” Noden said.
She added what she loves most about performing is the cheer, joy and bit of magic it brings to others.